How to Find Cold Medications That Really Work

Cold and cough medicines take up ranks in grocery stores and pharmacies, and the range of products can make you dizzy (which is not interesting at all if you are there because you already feel dizzy). However, choosing the right package becomes easier when you realize that many of the options are probably not worth it.

Know what drugs really are

Cold and cough medicine is rubbed on boxes of supplements and homeopathic remedies. They are not the same thing at all, although the labels can look the same to the point of confusion.

  • Medicines are approved by the FDA if their manufacturers can conduct research showing they are safe (do not cause serious side effects) and effective (i.e., they really do what they should). These are real medicines, and they are probably what you are looking for when you stand in the pharmacy and sniff.
  • Nutritional supplements are regulated as a specific type of food. They do not need FDA approval before being sold, so safety is more or less in the honor system. Supplements can include vitamins or herbal ingredients. Unfortunately, your chances of finding something effective in this category are pretty low. Vitamins and herbs don’t have very strong evidence to prove they do anything at all . Honey based cough syrups can be soothing, but then why not just use real honey, which is cheaper?
  • Homeopathic remedies don’t work, can’t work and are 100% a waste of money. They are often packaged to look like real medicines, with words marked with an asterisk such as “safe and effective” on the packaging, but don’t be fooled. If properly produced, they may contain absolutely nothing. Otherwise, they may contain enough active ingredient to cause serious side effects. A striking feature of a homeopathic product is that the active ingredients are named “HPUS”, and their amount is indicated in dilutions, such as “10X”, and not in milligrams, as in real medicines.

Read the ingredient label

After you’ve ruled out supplements and homeopathic remedies, there are dozens more brands of cough and cold medicine to choose from. The secret is that there are only a few ingredients to look out for.

As we found out the last time we looked at this , identical medicines are often sold in different packaging. If you just walk to the front of the box, you might end up buying the same one that you already have at home, where the only difference is how each box describes the symptoms it treats.

Flip the box over and see what’s in it. The most common categories are expectorants to thin mucus, cough suppressants to prevent coughing, decongestants to relieve nasal congestion, and pain relievers.

The sad news is that not all of these ingredients work very well. In studies that suppress the cough of dextromethorphan and expectorant guaifenesin, the research results are no better than honey, which can be seen either as a victory for honey or as a sad statement about the effectiveness of these drugs. The Cochrane review found no evidence that cough medicines actually work, although the studies were small and of not very good quality.

This does not mean that they are guaranteed to be useless; the review was also unable to confirm this. All we can say is that if they were miracle drugs, the study would have turned out differently. Personally, I feel like I cough less often when I take dextromethorphan, so I still use it. But if you don’t feel like cough medicine is helping, take action with your gut and save money.

Another disappointment is phenylephrine, a popular decongestant. This does not work well and may not work at all . Some studies have shown that it has little effect, while others have found that it is not effective at all. If you haven’t had a really good experience with this, you might as well continue to get plenty of rest and hot showers .

Look behind the counter

There is one cold medicine that actually works really well: pseudoephedrine. The problem is, it is a chemically close relative of methamphetamine, so according to the 2005 law, you can’t just buy a ton of methamphetamine off the shelf at a pharmacy . You will need to go to the counter and show your ID to buy it. It sucks if it’s late at night and you’re feeling awful, but at least it’s one way to get a decongestant that can actually work.


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